Thursday 27 October 2016

Looking back to argue about history is a part of what it is to be Irish

Gerard O'Regan

Published 08/10/2016 | 02:30

'The Autobiography - Eyewitness Accounts of Irish Life Since 1916' is edited by John Bowman (pictured)
'The Autobiography - Eyewitness Accounts of Irish Life Since 1916' is edited by John Bowman (pictured)

'If it was just the auld book, maybe - maybe - we might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case entirely.

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"And what anyhow entered your head to go and marry this foreign woman, when there are hundreds of thousands of Irish girls going around with their tongues out for a husband?" said the head of the Irish National Teachers Organisation to the young teacher.

The story has been recounted many times of how John McGahern lost his job in Belgrove Primary School in Dublin back in 1963, all because he had written a novel deemed to be unsuitable for public consumption.

His marriage to a Finnish woman was deemed to have then complicated matters further.

The above is McGahern's own account, of his meeting with the Into official; it was a kind of landmark moment in what is sometimes described as "the Irish psychosis''.

Yet, as we look back with ever far-distant memory, there is a feeling that all the key players in this particular drama were somewhat unwilling participants in a series of events not entirely of their own making.

Ironically, McGahern subsequently never seemed to get too upset about the whole sorry mess.

He always seemed to be able to put it into the context of its time.

The ubiquitous presence of Dublin's Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was undoubtedly at work behind the scenes, orchestrating the correct course of action as he saw fit, for a country and a society on the brink of massive social change.

The local parish priest was sympathetic to McGahern's plight and tried to stay apart from the row by making himself unavailable when the controversy first erupted.

The Into official was caught in the middle of a power struggle between the Catholic Church authorities, who had the final say in the running of the school, and the views of an individual teacher.

In the Ireland of the early 1960s, there could be only one winner in such a battle.

In the end, McGahern, who lost his teaching job, would go on to become one of the most lauded authors in the English language.

Yet despite his insights, perceptions, and literary brilliance, in many ways he insisted on maintaining a kind of studied neutrality about the influence of the church on Irish life.

He would remain a somewhat detached observer - at times almost indulgent of what he undoubtedly felt to be the foibles of others.

However, this McGahern vignette is brought to life yet again due to its inclusion in a highly readable 'dip into-style' history book which has just been published.

'The Autobiography - Eyewitness Accounts of Irish Life Since 1916', edited by John Bowman, trawls through a century of thoughts, words, and deeds, all part of a rich tapestry which has contributed to the evolution of whatever now passes for the collective Irish mindset.

One of the more intriguing extracts included in the book is by a Harvard professor, John V Kelleher.

He offered a searing observation of Ireland's economic malaise back in the 1950s, when the number of people leaving the country in search of work abroad surged to record levels.

"What emigration leaves behind is apathy below and smugness above,'' he wrote.

He also insisted that many of our problems since gaining independence were "largely psychosomatic" because of a tendency to look backwards and blame the past for our various ills.

He argued that in comparison to the traumas suffered by other countries in the 20th century, Ireland, in fact, had "an almost fatally easy time of it".

Meanwhile, given the centenary year that's in it, the book also gives a nod to one of the great might-have-beens in the Irish historical experience.

A private letter written by John Dillon, an Irish MP in the House of Commons, to British prime minister Lloyd George in 1916 is prescient about what is to come in the aftermath of the Rising.

Dillon insisted that if the leaders of the rebellion had not been executed Ireland "would have been solid" behind constitutional politicians such as himself.

"We could have done what we liked with it," he added.

Instead, he and his compatriots found themselves in "one of the greatest tragedies of all history" triggered by "the blunders and perversities" of the British government.

"You have let hell loose in Ireland," he warned.

Coincidentally, Roy Foster, one of our most highly regarded historians, who is retiring after 25 years as an Oxford University professor, a few days ago contrasted the difference between the Irish and the British in their attitudes to what has gone before.

"The Irish talk about history all the time; the Irish argue about history all the time," he said.

He also suggested that while some Irish people may hold a "very coloured version of history'", our interest in past events is clearly greater than that displayed by the British, who in contrast come from a country which was "secure and confident'' for a long time.

"You just have to look at the sale of history books in Ireland,'' he said emphasising his point regarding Ireland's relationship with its historical past.

One of the items included in the John Bowman compilation is a memoir by another of our writers, who, back in the day, also had a troubled relationship with the land of her birth and formative years.

Edna O'Brien describes a visit to her old family home outside Scarrif, Co Clare, in more recent times.

There among the surrounding brambles and bushes, and in the silence of a house now deserted, she became discomfited and somewhat desolate, wondering what exactly she was searching for.

A friend who had travelled with her tried to offer some consolation. "We go back for the whisper," she said.

Irish Independent

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